After seven years Ben Swift has finally flown from the Team Sky nest and set about forging a new future for himself at a new team. The 28-year-old will ride for Project TJ Sport in 2017 – formerly Lampre-Merida – and will lead the team in a number of races.
It is, without a doubt, the biggest and most important move if Swift's career with the British rider now in his prime years as a bike rider. A new environment, and certainly more freedom, could be all he needs to become one of the leading riders in next season's peloton.
"Stepping away from Team Sky is a big change, but it was an opportunity that I couldn't say no to," he tells Cyclingnews ahead of a short trip to the Isle of Man and then a lengthy block of training in South Africa.
"To be honest, my contract was up for renewal, and I wanted to see what options I had floating around out there. TJ Sport came with the best opportunities and deal, and they wanted to sign me as a leader. I want to take that next step, and although I've had a fantastic seven years at Team Sky, I am very limited in what I can do there."
Swift joined Team Sky for the inaugural 2010 season after a one-year stint at Team Katusha. Earmarked as a promising one-day racer with a decent kick in his legs he became part of the team's Classics backbone. Not only that, but he has also developed into a sprinter who could climb - vital ingredients of being successful in week-long races.
However, injuries and a powerful stage racing pecking order meant that Swift's opportunities became limited. There were flashes of his class – twice making the podium in Milan-San Remo – but chances to shine were becoming few and far between. With his contract up it was time to move on. However, the decision to leave what was essentially his home was not an easy one.
"It was quite a hard decision because everything else was so good at Sky. It was pretty much like a family for me, with the riders, and even the staff. I'd been working with Rod Ellingworth for ten years and Dave Brailsford for the best part of 14 years," he says.
"At TJ Sport we've got a team with a lot of guys who can lead, but at Team Sky my role was becoming more and more second fiddle, and especially on days where I could perform. I can't fault the opportunities that I was given, but it was just becoming harder and harder. In stage races, I'd have to pull on the front or pull in the mountains and then once everything was under control then I would be allowed to go for the win. It was hard to look in a race book at a one-week race and mark down stages I wanted to target. If it was a mountain top finish the day before then I'd be working, and it meant I just couldn't compete to my best ability. Team Sky is the best stage racing team but, for me, it was time to move on and take those opportunities again."
Finding the right place
Not shy of suitors, Swift became one of the most sought after riders on the market in the second half of the season. His talent and his handy WorldTour points saw teams scrambling for his signature around the time of the Tour of Britain. To his credit, Swift kept his head down and raced professionally before eventually deciding on his future. He wanted freedom and the chance to forge his own path, and the idea of racing on a team with a different nationality didn’t faze him.
"I was talking to teams, but TJ Sport showed a lot faith and confidence in me. They pursued me a lot and when someone does that it really makes a difference and helps your own confidence," says Swift.
"You know a lot of people in the peloton and we're all colleagues at the end of the day but actual friends as in having their numbers in my phone, I don't know anyone like that on the team but to be honest I've been in those positions before. I was at Team Katusha when I was young and even at Barloworld when I was 19 and in a new environment. I've got that experience, and I know what's expected of me.
"The more I thought about it the more I thought that the opportunity at TJ Sport was the best one for me. There are not many guys who are the exact same as me, who can sprint a bit, go well in the mountains and target the harder days. We obviously have someone like Sacha Modolo and guys like Diego Ulissi but at Dimension Data you've got someone like Edvald Boasson Hagen who is very similar to me. I had to ask myself where I would make the best fit."
The next two months will see Swift knuckle down and prepare for 2017. He will make his debut in his new colours at the Tour Down Under in Australia, while the spring classics remain a major target. The Tour de France is also a race Swift would like to return to.
"There's a lot of exciting things coming up and it's an exciting future. I'll start in Australia, but there are more WorldTour races now so we'll sit down and plan with the team. Obviously, races like Milan-San Remo I want to target but then maybe the Ardennes and I'd like to go back to the Tour de France. I've not been there since 2011, and it would be good to race there on a performance basis and not just be a worker."